Nobody Fails

footer-bookI recently attended a leadership conference where I was able to hear Laszlo Bock, the former Vice President of People Operations at Google, speak. One of the many things that he shared from his book Work Rules!, was that to make work a better place, a person should have a mission that matters. That work should have meaning. Real meaning. That this would serve a building block to real happiness and fulfillment at work and in life.

What a challenging and encouraging impetus! Who wouldn’t want to make work better and life happy!

Who could have a more clear mission than teachers? I teach high school math. My mission was crystal clear this past year: help kids learn Algebra. Simple enough. But the more Mr. Bock talked, the more I thought about what happened to me as a math teacher and to what happened in my classes. It wasn’t really about math at all.

Jennifer Allen writes about it in Chapter 7 of her book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. We have to define what success with instruction and intervention is. For her school, “Success to us is defined by more than a reading level.” In fact, she looked at the graduation rate of those kids who had been in the reading intervention classrooms at her school.

One of my math classes was a group of freshmen who had failed Algebra 1 in the first semester and were repeating it with me. It was an intervention class. And I had an army to assist me. Four classroom aides were assigned to my period. The Freshman graduation coach at our school spent a lot of time in my room too. So, you would think that we were all about math support – and we were!

But that was not the mission that drove our team. Not even remotely. From the very beginning of the second semester, when all these kids had their schedules rearranged to have a repeat class, we had a clear focus in front of us as a team charged with giving these kids round 2 of Algebra 1 semester 1: Nobody fails.

We were driven. If 15 kids didn’t pass a quiz, then we strategically retaught and rearranged lessons and plans to accommodate reteaching. They got 1 on 1 support with an assistant. They got a second dose. I retaught them. I pulled them in after school, before school, during our office hours. The graduation coach tracked them down during periods where they had some wiggle room to go over concepts again. I retested them. I tested them using different assessments sometimes… trying to match their modes of expression. We contacted parents to let them know how much we cared and asking for their support and help.

But nobody was going to fail. Nobody. All of the instructional team was on board. I retold them the mission often. I told the kids the mission. When kids were bored and distracted, I would often stop things and remind them of the behaviors that landed them there and then remind them with a smile that nobody was going to fail.

Do you remember the scramble in the movie Hidden Figures to accurately calculate the re-entry of the John Glenn’s space capsule? It generated the main tension for the movie and all hands were constantly scrapping to make sure that they were sure that they were sure that re-entry figures were accurate. They had a crystal clear mission.

That was how I felt about the kids in Algebra 1 Semester 1 Round 2.

Never in the 26 years I taught was work more difficult. I spend hours at home trying to figure out better ways to make Algebra more clear, to make it stick better, to help kids that didn’t ever have success in math have success. I researched. I planned. I tried. I collaborated.

But it wasn’t my algebra planning alone that helped kids succeed. It was the mission. Our team relentlessly held on to it. It drove us.

So, this year, as I tackle Geometry and Algebra 2 with whole new bunches of kids, you can bet that the drive behind my instruction will be that no one fails. No one. I will certainly be employing everything in my power to give kids strategies for navigating the sometimes despised, often neglected, and occasionally difficult world of math. I will still spend time finding out new things about how I’m successful at figuring out solutions and how that can transfer for them. I will look at what we know about brains and how they function. I’ll scrutinize other experts experiences with concept-specific strategies that may help kids. I’ll sell the math practices that we know help kids persevere in solving math problems.

But behind it all, the heartbeat of what I will do, the driving force, will be executing a mission that matters – nobody fails.

Jennifer sums it up well: “Our goal is ultimately to remove the intervention rooms as we reduce the number of students needing additional support.” With a little planning and collaboration, I can provide that support before we get to an intervention tier that requires something more drastic.

Nobody fails.

 

Struggling Mathers

This past year was my 26th in this business. I spent 11 of those as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher. I spent 5 years as an instructional coach. I taught alternative ed and GED for 2.5 years. All of my working life I’d been concerned with the input side of literacy – reading.  This year, I am teaching high school math.

I am a complete newbie at teaching high school Algebra. And I feel like it. I spend long hours poring over content trying to understand the most sensible route to making this abstract subject comprehensible and engaging for my freshmen. They were placed with me at the beginning of the second semester this past year to repeat semester 1 because they had failed it. I am certainly no expert and lean on my new peers in the math department for help.

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This is one reason why I am thankful to be reading Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. Specifically, she opens with her call to creating a climate where “creating ongoing opportunities for shared experiences and conversations among staff” is the way forward in navigating the myriad demands we face as teachers.

One of the most striking parts of my experience has been a fresh set of unbiased eyes on a traditional subject. All my years of literacy instruction have given me a different perspective on this whole math thing. I watch students “get it” when I sit with them one-on-one and we read a word problem out loud together. They start to make sense when I ask them a few good questions to help them reflect and verbalize what they know from the problem. As much as I leaned on my team, I believe I brought perspective to our conversations. 

It’s like “good” readers vs. struggling readers. You know. All those things we know those good readers are doing in their heads, like, predicting, connecting the text to things they know, making a movie of the action in their mind, reading for a specific purpose, scanning, skimming, re-reading… the list could go on. I am finding that struggling mathers are not doing the things that “good” mathers are doing.

That the difference between them often lies not in some innate ability, but a collection of habits that they don’t have yet and are not employing to help themselves. I find myself often modeling my thinking out loud for them. They apply few of the Standards For Mathematical Practice (which I am only just getting to now, as you can imagine).

This is only one example of how I am “seeing” and wrestling with literacy in math.

Just as Ms. Allen notes in chapter 2, as “learning to read should be a joyful experience,” so should learning to math. My attempt this summer while reading Jennifer’s book is to find parallels to help foster and lead in literacy in the math world. I know I have tons of math resources available to me – I’ve spent a lot of time reading them these past few months – but I want to specifically think about my context, my assignment, my kids and how I can help them navigate math help and instructional resources. I think Ms. Allen’s book is the perfect platform for developing the questions I want to ask in order to explore this further.